The Dove ad and the Beauty Stereotype

The interesting thing about human beings is that they have the mindspace for the intangibles…like beauty. What an abstract concept, and yet, every day, human beings have the capacity and desire to appreciate beauty in myriad forms – in nature, in other people, in architecture and so much more. I don’t know another species that does so, except in Disney cartoons. So why does the new Dove commercial, which talks about women being more beautiful than they think, bring out mixed emotions?

On the minus side: I don’t know whether it was the editing of the ads or the way that the strangers these women interacted with actually used only these terms to describe the women, but the overuse of the word thin had me cringing. Thin chin, thin face, thin this, thin that. Why weren’t more of the descriptions phrases like ‘strong chin’ or ‘smile-creased face’ or ‘intense eyes’, apart from the fact that the strangers may not be Mills and Boon writers in their spare time? Did they not use these types of descriptors? Did the editing cut these out? Are there more ads showing a wider demographic of women – Hispanic, Asian, South Asian, African, younger, older? Are there more Dove ads on the anvil which have different types of descriptors? I don’t know.

On the positive side, it is a good message to send that each and every woman is more beautiful than she thinks. Women are conditioned to expect impossible standards of beauty from themselves, from the time they are little girls buying into Barbie’s unrealistic curves or the Princess trope. As they grow up, the beauty and fashion industry, with its emphasis on almost anorexic figures and extensive airbrushing works to further enhance the anxiety and drive us to the arms of the nearest beauty counter.
My husband commented the other day that I have a space in my brain where compliments go to die. When it comes to compliments about my abilities - cooking, work, public speaking - I'm fine. But when it comes to compliments about my appearance, he's bang on. I either don't hear them or my inner self-critic comes out to meanly spit on the nice thing I just heard. It's a social construct- it begins from childhood, where girl babies or children are routinely commented upon from the perspective of beauty, while boys are commented upon from the context of ability or intelligence. There are Tshirts for girls that say 'Too pretty for homework', as if that were an empowering thing for them to hear. And these early messages set in in some primeval part of the brain that's hard to reprogram.

I still remember my father's colleague meanspiritedly telling me when I was seven that I was wearing a very pretty outfit and what a pity I wasn't pretty myself. Or my aunt saying that my mother cried for months after I was born because I was so ugly. Or the myriad friends of the family and relatives cooing over my sister as a baby because she was so fair with beautiful, curly hair and then pointedly staying away from the topic when looking at me.  Years later when a close friend described me as glamorous, I had to rub my ears in disbelief, because beauty and glamour, in my mind, were things to which I couldn't even aspire, because my standards or the images I carried of beauty were so different to my own appearance.
This level of unrealistic expectations, followed by constant underrating of ourselves is consistent with what Sheryl Sandberg says in her book Lean In. Women at the workplace constantly second guess themselves, underestimate their own abilities and therefore end up settling for less. It seems to be a running theme in the lives of women – the setting up of impossibly high standards of perfection, be it in appearance, as mothers, as workers - which are almost designed to make us feel inadequate, with the consequent impact on self confidence. You can see it in public spaces in any Indian city, where women have made the effort to turn themselves out well, dressed in whatever represents fashion or style to them, impeccably groomed, but walking with shoulders slightly hunched, next to a man who struts in, Tshirt stretched tightly over a paunch while his jeans hang loose over spindly legs, hair combed over to hide the bald spot, convinced he’s looking like Adonis. With that as the context, it’s an extremely empowering message to send to the wide swathe of women out there, that they are more beautiful than they think.

Should Dove or any other brand still be focussing on women and their equation with beauty? Well, it merely reflects the truth of society. Women are not only judged by society on beauty, they also buy into the beauty myth themselves and scrutinise themselves with a harsher lens than others do. Women are more prone to doing this than men, metrosexuality notwithstanding. If the brand uses the current context to send out its message, as a former advertising professional myself, I don’t have any quibbles with it. Dove is a beauty brand, not an NGO that works for women’s welfare or world peace. What did you expect them to promote? This ad and the brand do not owe it to society to overturn expectations that are centuries old. The ad’s job is to position Dove as a beauty brand in a way that differentiates it from other beauty brands. The fact that they have been using real women in their campaigns for years now, instead of airbrushed, size zero superhumans who live on a lettuce leaf a day, alone is enough to make me applaud them, as compared to other beauty brands.

But the message in this campaign is  that the standards aren't nearly as unrealistic and impossible as you have defined for yourself. Does the ad say that the women are to be judged by beauty alone? Does it say that’s all there is to them? No.  If Dove's campaign helps women be more self confident about how they look already instead of waiting for that elusive last five pounds to drop, or the right dress to come along, good. If it does so by painting a more empowering, inclusive idea of beauty, that’s great.
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